From Magna Carta to American democracy
Though Britain is a monarchy and the USA is a republic, the two nations share a common constitutional heritage that guarantees political and human rights.
THE HERITAGE OF MAGNA CARTA
In his address to the nation in September 2022 US President Joe Biden
warned Americans not to take
their democracy and their human rights for
granted. "We told ourselves that American democracy is
guaranteed," he said, "But it's not. We have to defend it. Protect it.
Stand up for it. Each and every one of us."
At a time when civil liberties and acquired human rights are are being questioned and even threatened in many countries, including the USA and the UK, it is interesting to look back at how these rights were acquired in the first place.
When the Founding Fathers of the United States drew up their Constitution in September 1787, part of what they wrote down was directly inspired by one of the most important documents in the history of England: Magna Carta.
As gentlemen who were familiar with the culture of the British Isles, from where their ancestors had mostly come, the Founding Fathers knew their English history well; they saw what was right and what was wrong with the political and administrative system of power in the country of their ancestors; and they decided that as far as its effects on American colonies were concerned, Britain was not applying the basic principles of just and responsible government. To American eyes, the principles of Magna Carta were no longer being respected. The Founding Fathers were determined that in the new United States of America, these rights would be enshrined in the Constitution.
Magna Carta is certainly one of the most influential documents to have been written in the last 1,000 years. It was in the year 1215, the late Middle Ages, that a group of Anglo-Norman noblemen decided that the time had come to establish once and for all in England the limits of royal power and the fundamental rights of the people.
Inspired partly by the democratic tradition of the Anglo Saxons (who ruled England until the Norman conquest in 1066), partly by their own desire to prevent a royal dictatorship, they forced the notorious King John to sign away the right of a monarch to rule autocratically without the consent of parliament.
As far as basic human rights are concerned, they too were established in writing in Magna Carta.
"No free man shall be imprisoned, unless by the lawful judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land," it stated. "To none will we (i.e. the monarch) sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice."
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Magna Carta was the original Bill of Rights. Although it did not give "power to the people" in any modern sense of the word, it did limit the power of the King. It confirmed the authority of Parliament, and established for good one of the most important principles of regal or political power in England - namely that the power and authority of a leader to rule are subject to approval and permanent scrutiny of those over whom he rules.
In other words, Magna Carta served to banish for ever from England any idea of the "divine right of kings" or "absolute monarchy". On the few occasions since then when British monarchs have tried to override the limitations imposed on them by Magna Carta and subsequent constitutional acts, they have done so at their peril. When King Charles 1st was tempted by the attraction of absolute power in the seventeenth century, he had his head cut off, and the monarchy was temporarily abolished.
A fact that is often forgotten nowadays, is that England was one of the first nations to become a republic in modern times; Charles 1st was replaced by a commoner called Oliver Cromwell, and England became a "Commonwealth".... which is a vague translation of the Latin expression res publica – more normally translated as republic. The republic lasted for only eleven years, after which Parliament reinstated the monarchy; but twenty-nine years later, the power of the monarch was again restricted, and the rights of Parliament and the people were reaffirmed, in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.
Transferred into the language of eighteenth century America, the principles of Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights were taken one step further, when the United States Constitution totally separated the three sides of power: executive power (the President), legislative power (Congress) and judicial power (the Supreme Court).
In the course of the centuries, the bold democratic principles originating in Magna Carta have too often been neglected in individual cases; but at least they had the merit of existing, and generally speaking they have underlined law in the English speaking countries ever since. It is a pity that even in Britain or the USA, there are politicians today who do not believe in all the democratic values that have guided our history for many generations.
For more about the United States Constitution, see ► The US Constitution and other pages on About-the-USA.com
take for granted: consider as acquired - threaten: menace, put in danger - enshrined: made permanent - Middle Ages: the medieval period - noblemen: lords, aristocrats - notorious: famous for bad reasons - prevent: avoid, stop from happening - autocratic: dictatorial - banish: remove - act: law - reinstate: put back in place - lawful: legitimate, legal - peers: people in the same social group
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Revised from an article originally published in Spectrum, the Advanced level English newsmagazine.
Republication on other websites or in print is not authorised